Konnie Huq: Land ahoy! Huq ready to jump 'Blue Peter' ship
After 10 years on the high seas presenting the BBC's flagship children's show, Konnie Huq tells Sophie Morris that she's looking forward to a life free of scrutiny and sticky-back plastic
Monday 21 January 2008
Konnie Huq is fighting off the effects of a late night and a bit of a snuffle, but she can't keep her excitement at the imminent end to her 10-year presenting tenure at Blue Peter under wraps. In her first breath she lets slip all the drawbacks of working for the BBC's flagship children's show, which has been on air for almost 50 years, at times for five afternoons a week.
"It's a full-on schedule," she explains, "with lots of restrictions on my time. You get in really early. When you're not in the studio you're here, there and everywhere." And then: "Ten years is a really long time in a job. Because you're on a buyout contract, it's almost like you're owned. You're supposed to be able to protect a day off but then they unprotect it. In 10 years, I've never had a day off ill. You just can't."
Isn't being a Blue Peter presenter supposed to be the job dreams are made of, where you get paid to go diving with sharks in the Bahamas, lark about in the studio creating pipe-cleaner masterpieces, and interview the Prime Minister? The sort of job most people would walk over hot coals for?
In fact, Huq did just that for the show two years ago, and she picks it out as the challenge she was least keen to undertake. She almost cracked the mind-over-matter test, but a healthy cynicism let her down at the last minute. "You're supposed to put your mind in this blank zone," she explains. "I'm one of those people who did it for a bit, but then I started to think: 'Well, actually, my feet are burning. My feet should be burning.' And that's exactly what you're not supposed to do. That's why I got the blister on the last step."
Was that the moment she realised she had lost her faith in the Blue Peter vehicle, and that it was time to step down? Or was it when she realised she was soon to overtake Valerie Singleton as the longest-serving presenter (which she did last month)? Or was it when Blue Peter was chastised twice during last summer's witchhunt at Television Centre?
The show was caught out for putting a fake caller on the line during a charity phone-in (a technical hitch meant that the real callers couldn't get through). "Catgate" followed shortly afterwards, when the show's producers decided to call the new cat the second-most-voted-for name by the viewers, Socks, instead of Cookie, the name the majority of callers had chosen.
Huq cannot conceal her mirth at the ensuing scandal, which saw Blue Peter getting another kitten and naming it Cookie. The first incident cost the show £50,000; the second cost the editor Richard Marsden his job. Huq kept an admirably straight face when she apologised for each on air. She describes it now – being almost, but not quite, free of Blue Peter's gilded handcuffs – as a "silly mistake" rather than "misleading the nation" with devious intent.
Huq, 32, will bid a final farewell to her Blue Peter fans at 5pm tomorrow. She has been laying some careful foundations for this, somewhat overdue, televisual coming-of-age. Off-screen, she has just bought her first flat having previously lived with her parents, and over the past year or so, she has made the entertainment show The Tube for Channel 4 Radio, documentaries for the BBC's Asian Network, and covered New York and London Fashion Weeks for GMTV. She will make an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? for the BBC, tracing her Bengali heritage, and last month appeared on Ready Steady Cook and in an episode of Robin Hood. She is also hosting a run of London Talking, a new live current- affairs chatshow on ITV, in which Huq oversees the feisty Vanessa Feltz and Nick Ferrari debating the topics of the day. She describes it as "somewhere between The Wright Stuff, Question Time and Trisha". Having begun her career as a teenager and continued to work through an economics degree at Cambridge, she is used to juggling commitments.
Huq found herself in a little political hot water of her own last summer after she appeared at a pro-cycling event with Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London. The BBC deemed such an appearance suggested that Huq's political leanings lay with Labour and that her presence threatened its impartiality code. The BBC was forced to apologise to the Conservative Party, and the Huq camp put it down to a communications mix-up by her agent. As a result, she is now being media-briefed for her brave new post-Blue Peter world by the publicists Ian Monk Associates.
"I still stand by my statement that cycling is healthy and that families should cycle together if they wish to," says Huq today, with a wry smile, but the mini-scandal was clearly painful at the time, breaking as it did at the height of the pan-BBC troubles in the summer. "The BBC bosses were having to apologise for things left, right and centre, so they probably just put it down on their list as another thing to apologise for. Blue Peter's difficult because it's almost like a metaphor for the BBC as a whole. If Blue Peter does something wrong, it's a million times worse than if another show does the same thing. It is supposed to be whiter than white and cleaner than clean, sometimes to the point where it's ridiculous.
"People are always trying to trip us up and are so disappointed when I don't say anything scandalous. I am still with Blue Peter, and I've got into trouble over such non-things before. I'm not going to go and spoil it all now!"
The last great Blue Peter scandal was in 1998, when then-presenter Richard Bacon was sacked for taking cocaine. Huq subsequently began a long-term relationship with Bacon that ended in 2006. All she will admit of her present boyfriend of a year is that he, too, works in TV, but behind the camera, and "far removed from children's television" – a place Huq herself will inhabit come end of play tomorrow, and if she continues to choose more commercial projects, we may find her speaking her mind with more ease very soon.
That's not to say that she doesn't have plenty of praise for the show that has made her a household name for millions of children, who will no doubt continue to watch her into adulthood. "There are times in that job when you think, 'I'm being paid to do this?'." Yet, she points out, "If you live in a mansion, you still want central heating."
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